‘You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.’
Serena Williams gave a haunting rendition of this poem by Maya Angelou in a BBC video, ahead of Wimbledon 2016; one African-American icon bringing to life the work of another. While the poem by Angelou was published in 1978, three years before the tennis player was born, it poignantly captures their common ancestry, the struggle, and an indomitable spirit. After the 40-year-old Williams announced last week that she was ‘evolving away’ from the sport, the tennis world has tried to make sense of her career, her legacy.
The winner of 23 singles Grand Slams, Williams is one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. She is also a black champion in an overwhelmingly white sport. A female champion in a space where the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) discussion seems to be limited to three men, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all of whom have, so far, won fewer titles than her. In 2016, Williams said that almost all through her career she was “undervalued and underpaid”. Her greatness lies in the way she has been able to rise above, not just far above the competition but also the odds and the prejudices stacked against her.
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“There were so many matches I won because something made me angry or someone counted me out,” she wrote in an essay for Vogue earlier this month, which served as her farewell note. “That drove me. I’ve built a career on channeling anger and negativity and turning it into something good.”
The tennis dream was handed to Williams, and older sister Venus, by their father Richard, who designed an outrageous plan to take his daughters from a ghetto in Compton, California to the top of the tennis world. He pushed them towards it, come rain or shine. The foundations of their game were laid on littered public courts, where they sometimes had to clear shards of broken glass before they could practice. The sisters were confidants and rivals. That’s where they learnt the unconventional open stance, and grit. “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that's concentration,” Serena had once said.
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When, as predicted by their father, Venus and Serena burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, the tennis world wasn’t quite prepared for it. They suffered racist slurs in locker rooms and from the stands. Rather than being hailed as path-breakers, they were initially scoffed at for their power tennis, athleticism and in-your-face competitiveness. But Serena Williams wasn’t here to fit in, she was meant to break the mould.
She made her ambition clear by winning the US Open in 1999 at the age of 17. It kicked off a reign that has lasted for over two decades. During that time, Williams has won 23 singles Grand Slam titles, 10 of those after the age of 30, making her the most successful player in the Open Era. The last of her majors came at the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. The American has been a World No. 1 for 319 weeks, has won 73 tour titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles with Venus, two mixed doubles titles and four Olympic gold medals. She has claimed the ‘Serena Slam’ (where held all four majors at once but not in the same year) twice, first in 2002-03, and the in 2014-15.
Williams walked into every tournament as the favourite to win the title, year after year, for over 20 years. While that stature often helped her beat opponents before they even stepped on a court, it was pressure too, that sort that can crush players—and the ones who have won Grand Slams after her are ample proof that it does. But Williams made it look easy, like she was born to rule. “I love to win. I love the battle. I love to entertain,” she wrote. “I know perfect doesn’t exist, but whatever my perfect was, I never wanted to stop until I got it right.”
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Despite so comprehensively dominating women’s tennis, Williams has only recently been universally embraced. Over the years, she has faced barbed sexist comments because she didn’t fit society’s parameters of feminine beauty. In 2014, Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev called Venus and Serena the “Williams brothers”. Four years later, a reporter asked Williams if she felt “intimidated” by Maria Sharapova’s “supermodel good looks”. For the record, Williams has won 20 of their 22 contests and leads 8-1 in Grand Slam meetings.
“When I was growing up, what was celebrated was different,” Williams said in 2020. “Venus looked more like what is really acceptable: she has incredibly long legs, she's really, really thin. I didn't see people on TV that looked like me, who were thick. There wasn't a positive body image.”
By her own admission, Williams initially struggled with being ‘different’ but never bowed down to society’s expectations of her. It is because of strong role models like her that a new generation of athletes are comfortable in their own skin.
“I grew up watching her,” Coco Gauff, who was not even born when Williams started her reign, said last week. “That’s the reason why I play tennis and tennis being a predominantly white sport, it definitely helped a lot because I saw somebody who looked like me, dominating the game and it made me believe I could dominate too.”
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The tennis world has only truly woken up to Williams’ greatness in the last five years, when she returned from motherhood in a bid to rewrite history. When Williams went on maternity leave, in the spring of 2017, she was only one major short of Maragaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles Grand Slam titles. In 2018, she made a comeback after multiple surgeries due to complications during childbirth and resume the chase.
Though a step slower, her incredible ball-striking ability took her to four Grand Slam finals—Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, and again in 2019. But each of those times, Williams lost her nerve. She didn’t win a single set in those four matches. The 2022 US Open, which begins on 29 August, may be her final attempt at the record, as Williams prepares to move away from tennis, grow her family and expand her business empire.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record,” Williams wrote. “I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine.”
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After a year-long break, Williams made her singles comeback at Wimbledon this summer. The farewell tour has already begun. She was competing at the Canadian Open when the news of her impending retirement emerged. A day after she penned the essay, Williams lost to Belinda Bencic and said goodbye to Toronto.
Love and respect cascaded down the stands as she stood at the centre of the court, hand-on-heart, teary-eyed, overwhelmed. It was the kind of unconditional support Williams always deserved, but rarely received. If, even for just that moment, the world felt like a more tolerant, diverse space, it was because stars like Williams have willed it into existence.
Out of the huts of history’s shame, I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain, I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.
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